In 2004, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos met for a meal to discuss space. ... | by Trung Phan

Trung Phan


over 1 year ago

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In 2004, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos met for a meal to discuss space. It was one of their few in-person interactions. That conversation perfectly captures the different approaches they've taken to space (and why SpaceX has pulled ahead of Blue Origin). Here's the story 🧵

1/ For Bezos, the path to the meeting began in 1999 when he and famed sci-fi author Neal Stephenson watched the film "October Sky" (about NASA engineer Homer Hickam) After the viewing, the Amazon founder told Stephenson he always wanted to start a space company...

2/ ..and Stephenson said "why don't you start today?" Stephenson -- author of classics such as "Snow Crash" -- was hire #1 and put together a team of thinkers and engineers. Blue Origins was incorporated in Sept 2000. Bezos checked in one Saturday a month to talk shop.

3/ Around the time (2001), Musk was part of a space advocacy group called Mars Society. To create buzz, he pursued a project to send rats/plants to Mars to prove that it was possible. Musk even flew to Russia to buy 3 "refurbished ICMBs" but balked at the price ($24m total).

4/ Instead, Musk decided to build his own rockets. He incorporated SpaceX in March 2002, ~18 months after Bezos and Blue Origin. He funded the venture from a cash windfall after eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5B.

5/ From the start, SpaceX was much more publicly visible. Musk's attempts to win NASA contracts (competing w/ Boeing and Lockheed Martin) included wild stunts. In Dec 2003, he rolled a SpaceX rocket down Independence Ave in DC and gave a speech at the Air & Space Museum

6/ Not long after -- in 2004 -- the two met to talk space, with very different missions in mind: ◻️ Blue Origin: "Preserve the Earth” by going “to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy”. ◻️ SpaceX: Colonize Mars and "make humanity a multi-planetary species"

7/ While SpaceX had yet to launch a rocket into space, it was testing engines in Texas and Bezos wanted to pick Musk's brains. It was a very technical chat. Musk was unimpressed with Bezos' progress.

8/ Like really unimpressed ("dude, we tried that")

9/ Why did Bezos ignore Musk's advice? His history at Amazon clearly shows 3 things: ◻️vast patience ◻️trailblazing its own path ◻️constant experimentation If Bezos was wrong, he wanted to find out on his own.

10/ Further, in 2004, Blue Origin was very much a side project. Bezos kept expenses to a minimum and wanted a lean team (~70) believing that constraints led to innovation. He enshrined the philosophy in a "Welcome Letter" that all Blue Origin employees receive:

10/ The "Welcome Letter" and notion of patiently pursuing a long-term objective is further encapsulated in Blue Origin's: ◻️motto = "Gradatim Ferociter" (step by step, ferociously) ◻️coat of arms = a pair of turtles (AKA the tortoise vs. the hare) heading to the stars

11/ Conversely, SpaceX's motto is "Head down. Plow through the line" Musk's aim of creating a multi-planet species (eg Mars) requires urgency. (Bezos is more focussed on creating a space economy for millions of people) SpaceX's first successful launch came 4yrs after they met.

12/ Clearly, Bezos' "tortoise" approach was losing. Headcount ◻️ 2010: SpaceX (900) vs. Blue Origin (275) ◻️ 2017: SpaceX (5k) vs. Blue Origin (1k) Blue Origin's New Shepard would finally touch the edge of space in Apr 2015, ~7 years after SpaceX.

13/ Meanwhile, SpaceX owns the public's imagination and wins government contracts: 2012: 1st spacecraft sent to ISS 2016: 1st vertical lancing on ocean platform 2017: 1st re-used rocket 2018: Falcon Heavy (largest rocket in operation) launched 2020: 2 astronauts sent to ISS

14/ In April 2017, Bezos said "enough", announcing he would sell $1B of $AMZN a year to fund Blue Origin. A few months later, he hired Bob Smith -- an aerospace exec from defence contractor Honeywell -- as Blue Origin CEO. Blue now has 3.5k employees (vs. SpaceX @ 9.5k).

15/ Blue has aggressively poached SpaceX employees, often 2x-ing their salary: "I think it’s unnecessary and a bit rude,” Musk says of the practice. In April 2021, Blue Origin challenged a $2.9B contract NASA awarded to SpaceX. Musk taunted Bezos with this tweet and image:

16/ Now, Bezos will fly to space on July 20 with his brother and 2 other passengers. Last week, he donated $200m to the Smithsonian Institute to promote science and space research. While Bezos ignored Musk's advice at in 2004, these moves are right out of Musk's PR playbook.

17/ Musk himself booked a space flight on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. No date is set but the two hung out the morning before Branson went to space on July 11 (beating Bezos by 9 days). No word if Musk and Bezos will brunch before Bezos' flight (unlikely).

18/ With Bezos retiring from Amazon and all in on Blue Origin, the battle between the world's 2 richest people may just be starting ($205 Bezos vs. $160B Musk) To win the Space Race, it's looking like Bezos is ditching Aesop's tortoise. Next step: Become Blue Origin CEO?

19/ If you enjoyed this, FOLLOW @TrungTPhan for other baller business stories and some really dumb memes:

20/ Sources Book excerpts from Christian Davenport's excellent "Space Barons": Great breakdown of Blue Origin vs. SpaceX from Brad Stone:

21/ NOTE: Photo that leads the thread is NOT from the 2004 meeting b/t Bezos and Musk (it's the only photo can find of the two together). It's from 2008, at an economics workshop. Third person is U of Chicago professor Sendhil Mullainathan. More here:

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